silver lining

Bad news, versus thing for which to be thankful:

I’m not due at Dad’s until this afternoon, so I ran to Walmart just now to pick up a few groceries. (I won’t be doing any of my holiday shopping until later.) On the way back, I realized I had to break a $20 so that I could get change so that I could do laundry.

I stopped at a convenience store, and when I got out my front driver’s side tire was completely flat. And this wasn’t a fix-a-flat flat; both front tires need to be replaced. I had trouble with one of the lug nuts, and a stranger was nice enough to stop and help me with it. I have the temporary spare in place now’; I’m not sure whether my tire store is open tomorrow or whether I’ll have to wait until Monday.

I’ve already had to get a new battery this month, and I was not planning on the expense of two new tires.

But on the bright side, it could very easily have gone flat last Friday, on the Interstate, and prevented me getting to Nashville. So that’s a thankful note for the day.

best. night. ever.

Here, my friends, is the story of one of the most amazing things that has ever happened to me.

The thing I’m talking about happened this month, but in order to appreciate it we have to jump back a few decades, to the early 1980s in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I was a student at what I sometimes refer to as Famous Televangelist University. Christian college can be a stiflingly-conformist environment; I had a dorm director once proclaim in a devotion that it was one of the hardest places to be a Christian, because it was so easy to just drift along with the crowd and do all the right things for all the wrong reasons, or for no reason at all.

Then, as now, there existed both really bad Christian music and really good Christian music. I had the quirky sense of humor to latch on to several artists with satirical sensibilities – songwriters who could laugh at themselves and poke at the foibles of both the secular world and the imperfect church. During my years at ORU, I became a particular fan of the band Daniel Amos, singer-songwriter Randy Stonehill and singer-songwriter Steve Taylor.

Daniel Amos, by the way, played a concert at a church in Smyrna three or four years ago – the first time they’d toured in ages. But I couldn’t go; I was in camp that week, as a volunteer in Mountain T.O.P.’s Adults In Ministry program in Grundy County.

About a year and a half later, my wonderful sister, who had drawn my name for Christmas, gave me a ticket to a nostalgia-themed all-star concert of Christian entertainers from the 1970s and 80s which had Randy Stonehill as one of the headliners. But the concert (which was going to be taped for a TV special) ended up being canceled for some unknown reason.

i-want-to-be-a-cloneFor purposes of this story, then, let’s get back to the third member of that troika. Steve Taylor’s 1983 debut EP, “I Want To Be A Clone,” had a blistering, new-wave title song. That song, and the EP, were a perfect antidote to Christian college conformity. The song was all about Christian conformity, and how some within the church seek to impose their own private beliefs, practices and even language upon others.

By the time that album came out, I was using my own sense of humor to help keep me level at ORU. My good friend, the late Kendall Durfey, and I produced parody radio ads which I played over the public address system prior to on-campus movies (I spent 2 ½ years as ORU’s campus film chairman, and then my senior year I was vice-president of the Student Association in charge of campus activities). I wrote the spots, we both voiced them, and Kendall used his production expertise to make them sound great. In many of the spots, Kendall played a funny character, “Dr. Herb Zimmerman.”

I also wrote a humor column, “Speed Bumps,” for ORU’s campus newspaper, the Oracle, and was in charge of a special April Fool’s edition of the paper my senior year, setting the stage for the April Fool’s story I now do each year at the Times-Gazette.

Time marched on. I graduated in 1984 and moved home to Tennessee a year later. Steve Taylor released several more of his own albums. He was also a member of a crossover band, Chagall Guevara, which had a secular record deal. I went to see Chagall Guevara in Nashville in 1991, the only time I’d ever seen Steve perform live. Steve became a record executive, and played a key role in the success of Sixpence None The Richer, among others.

He directed a number of videos – for himself, for Sixpence and for other artists – and that gave way to him becoming a movie director. I and my girlfriend at the time went to Brentwood Baptist Church to be in the crowd scenes for “The Second Chance,” a movie Steve directed starring Michael W. Smith.

More recently, Steve directed a movie adaptation of “Blue Like Jazz” by Donald Miller.

Now, after a 10-year absence, Steve is making music again. He’s put together a new band, The Perfect Foil. Their new album was released earlier this week. A few weeks before that, Steve started releasing videos to promote the new album.

I enjoyed all three. While watching the last one, “Goliath,” I happened to click the “like” button on YouTube. Because of the way my YouTube account is configured, that automatically generated a Twitter post stating that I had liked the video.

Right away, the official Twitter account for Steve Taylor & The Perfect Foil favorited and retweeted my post. No real surprise there; any artist with a good social media team might have done the same.

But then, almost right away, I got a message from the account asking if I was the same John Carney who had attended ORU in the 1980s.

I had to admit that I was. I was also, at that moment, pretty curious.

The message came from Steve’s manager, Nick Barre. Nick was a few years behind me at ORU. He remembers the funny fake radio ads and the humor column. He said that Kendall and I inspired him, and made him want to be creative too.

We could stop the story right there and it would be pretty darn amazing. This guy remembers my humor – 30 years later! – and actually calls me an inspiration. He took the time to introduce himself and tell me so on a social media site. I was deeply flattered. That compliment alone made my night, and it’s probably the most amazing thing about this story.

But then, Nick continued. Steve Taylor & The Perfect Foil would be playing Nov. 21 at the Cannery, a Nashville nightclub. The band was billing it as their album release party.

“I’d love to put you on the guest list,” wrote Nick.

Nope; sorry. Not interested. I mean, why would I want to be an invited guest for a show by one of my long-time favorite artists? That wouldn’t be any fun, would it?

Two of my ORU friends, Emory Stagmer in Maryland and Darrell Grizzle in the Atlanta area, went to earlier concerts on the tour and gave them glowing reviews.

I arrived at The Cannery early enough to get one of the last few free parking spots, before people started having to park in the paid lot next door. I must have gotten there about 20 minutes before the doors opened at 7 p.m.; it was an 8 o’clock show.

While I was waiting outside, a man in a plaid shirt darted out, and we instantly, if hesitantly, recognized each other from Facebook profile photos.

“John?”

“Nick?”

Nick was busy with his managerial duties, but he stopped to introduce himself and welcome me to the concert (as if I were doing him a favor rather than the other way around). He mentioned that The Perfect Foil’s lead guitarist, Jimmy Abegg, was “under the weather,” which I mistakenly thought meant he’d have to miss the concert. It later turned out he had gotten severe food poisoning while the band was in Atlanta for that show earlier in the week. (Darrell, do we need to educate you Georgians on food safety?) He was still not feeling well at show time, and Steve made reference to this, but you couldn’t tell it from his playing.

Nick did, however, tell me that there would be “surprises” during the concert.

I made polite conversation with a few other people standing there on the porch – a lot of them, not surprisingly, were my age, and the porch looked like Old Fart Jubilee, to borrow a phrase from Joe Bob Briggs.

The Cannery Ballroom is one of those big open standing-room-only nightclubs. There are no tables around the perimeter or anything like that. I was there early, and so I was thrilled to be standing very, very close to the stage.

WP_20141121_007The opening act was the husband-and-wife duo Fleming & John – not a coincidence, since John Mark Painter also happens to be the bass player for The Perfect Foil. I’d heard the name but wasn’t really familiar with their work. I was blown away – they were great, melodic and entertaining. I will definitely be checking out their catalog. I posted a photo to Facebook after their set, and was tickled when my former castmate Sharon Kay Edwards responded by saying that “I’m Not Afraid” had been her “high school jam.”

Later, during his set, Steve said his goal next year is to release a new Fleming & John record.

WP_20141121_017Then, of course, it was time for Steve and the new band. They were every bit as good as I thought they’d be. I was worried about standing for three hours. Steve, who is 4 ½ years older than me, rubber-legged and skinny as a rail, bounced around the stage, flailing and crouching and spinning and leaping with the same energy I’d seen at that Chagall Guevara concert in 1991. He has an incredible stage presence.

The set was a perfect mix of new and old songs.

They opened with “Only A Ride,” which had been the first video released from “Goliath,” but “I Want To Be A Clone” popped up early in the set as well.

I was lost in the music throughout.

When the show was over, we screamed for the encore. Steve, true to form, came back out and performed – so help me – a cover of Beyonce’s “Single Ladies.” Then he launched into the real encore, “Jim Morrison’s Grave.” I had seen reference to this having been the encore at one of the previous concerts.

But it wasn’t the only encore.

After that, Steve brought out Dave Perkins, Lynn Nichols and Mike Mead from Chagall Guevara. Mead displaced Peter Furler at the drum kit, but Abegg and Painter stayed on stage, and The Perfect Foil / Chagall Guevara peformed a cover of “Gloria” and then “Violent Blue,” off the Chagall Guevara album. That was the surprise Nick had hinted at, and what a surprise and thrill it was.

Steve-Door

Steve had promised to hang out and meet people after the show, and he was as good as his word. I had brought a 1984 issue of The Wittenburg Door with Steve on the cover, and he signed it for me. Nick was standing nearby and was kind enough to repeat his compliments in Steve’s presence, but the fact of the matter is that Steve was just as gracious to every single person who wanted to speak to him.

I’m an idiot, by the way, for not getting a photo of me and Nick as well.

WP_20141121_042

By this point, it was after midnight. I told Nick I had to get back to Shelbyville so that I could get up early for a Relay For Life fundraiser at the Times-Gazette. Nick repeated his story of how Kendall and my parody radio spots, and to a lesser extent my humor column, inspired him, and how seriously he took it when he got the chance to program ORU’s campus radio station.

At this point, I’m wondering to myself: If I was really as talented as Nick perceived me to be, what happened? How is it that I’m now 52, overweight, single, seemingly at a career dead end, and fighting my way out of poor financial practices from earlier in life? I was kind of grateful that Nick didn’t see my white 1995 Geo Metro with one red door, the one I literally prayed before the trip would make it to Nashville and back without incident.

But this wasn’t a night for dwelling on the negative. This was a night to accept a great compliment, enjoy a great show, relive some memories and get to know some great new songs. This was, in short, one of the best nights I’ve had in some time – one of the best nights ever.

Life imitates art

I’m a little behind pace on my National Novel Writing Month novel. But I had a vacation day yesterday, and caught up just a little. I am taking comp time today, because I’ll work a full day Saturday covering various events, and hope to catch up a little more today.

Just a few days ago, I had my main character worrying about something going wrong with his car.

This morning, I had (re)scheduled a lunch with Chris Shofner, a former co-worker (Chris was editor when I first joined the T-G in 1985). I went out to my car at the time I wanted to leave, and – it wouldn’t turn over. Chris came over and gave me a jump start, and I got the car to the place where I normally take it – which has changed hands since the last time I went there.

They tested and ruled out the alternator, and then tested the battery – bad. Not as expensive as an alternator would have been, but still exactly the kind of thing my main character was worrying about in the novel. Chris and I had our lunch while they were putting in a new battery.

If I have this kind of control over time and space, maybe I should have my character in the novel win the lottery.

Table for one, please

A month ago, we had a belated cast party for “Daddy’s Dyin’… Who’s Got The Will?” at one of our local restaurants and had such a great time we decided to do it again a month later. At the time, all I was thinking about was that the first Tuesday of the month was the only one in which I had no county meetings to cover. I didn’t think about it being Election Night, when I’d have to be at the courthouse collecting results. When I realized the conflict a few days ago, I had to beg off.

Meanwhile, I ran into an old co-worker on Halloween night and he suggested we get together for lunch. Tuesday sounded fine to me — this time, I knew it was Election Day, but I also know that during the day, when the voting is actually taking place, isn’t necessarily that hectic. In fact, I need to take a little comp time during the day to make up for the fact that I’m working long hours in the evening, so a relaxed lunch with an old friend sounded like a great idea.

But the friend called me this morning — he’d suddenly realized it was Election Day, automatically assumed I’d be too busy for lunch, and went ahead and made other plans before calling me.

So now, I’m eating alone for both lunch and dinner — which is par for the course, but in this particular case a bit of a disappointment.

Day two, 4,100 words

bookcoverI might end up writing a little more before I go to bed tonight, but I seem to be at a stopping point.

I am officially ahead of the 50,000-word pace on my National Novel Writing Month project, “The Unreliable Narrator,” but I’m not as far ahead of pace as one would expect to be after two weekend days. I had sort of hoped to get 5,000 this weekend, especially since I may not have much time to write Tuesday, Election Day.

I have gotten off to a mixed start. I like some things, but what I’ve got so far is a little more scattershot, a little too autobiographical, and a little more rambling, than I had intended. But this is NaNoWriMo – it doesn’t have to be good, it just has to be 1,667 words a day. It may be that nothing I produce this month will be marketable. Or it may be that there Participant-2014-Square-Buttonwill be parts of what I produce that I can turn into something marketable. But it’s more about the discipline and the experience than about crafting the next Great American Novel on this particular try.

One fun thing is that three of my “Daddy’s Dyin … Who’s Got The Will?” castmates are also taking the plunge this month, and so I’ll get to commiserate with them. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll get to make it to our cast get-together Tuesday night – I had forgotten about the election back when we scheduled this.

juggling act

I had three different groups today during my Raise Your Hand Tennessee volunteer time at Learning Way.

Ms. Aymett had given me a basket of several different activities – but several of the little Ziploc bags, which she had described to me as containing rhyming words, did not rhyme. I looked at the pictures, and I looked at the teacher’s list of words, and there was not one rhyming combination in the first bag, and I don’t think there was one in the second bag either. (I think she just grabbed the wrong bags.)

So we moved on to one of the other games, where the kids are given are some words and asked to put them together into a sentence. The kids were surprisingly eager to do this.

The group dynamics of this were interesting, and I had to watch to make sure I was managing them as well as I could. In one particular group, there was a boy who was very pro-active (and right, a good part of the time). I wanted to reward him for being right, but I didn’t want him to take over the process or take too much time away from others.

I was well aware that other students (like the very quiet girl sitting right next to me) might or might not have the right answer, and that might be unrelated to whether or not they were willing to jump in. I had to be very deliberate – and I’m not sure I was successful – about trying to manage things so that everyone had a hand in the process.

I love this experience – but by the end of the hour, I’ve usually been keenly reminded what an amateur I am.

My third group was just two children, both girls, and with that one it was a lot easier. We breezed through the sentence game, and had time for the only other thing in the basket: some flash cards with words and letters on them. I thought this would be a hard sell, but they were happy to demonstrate their expertise.

In the on-deck circle

At this time next weekend, I’ll be noveling.

It’s been two or three years since I’ve made a serious stab at National Novel Writing Month, but – along with several of my recent “Daddy’s Dyin’” castmates – I’m going to do so this year.

National Novel Writing Month – “NaNoWriMo,” to participants – is an annual writing exercise, just for the fun of it. It’s not competitive (unless you make it so!), and anyone can participate, whether you normally consider yourself a writer or not. The idea is that you write a 50,000-word novel (which some would call a novella) entirely during the month of November. You can prepare in advance (plot outline, character biographies, etc.), but the normal interpretation is that you do not start any actual writing until Nov. 1.

If you get to 50,000 words by November 30, even if you haven’t finished the novel, you have “won” – although bragging rights and personal satisfaction are the only stakes.

The idea here is that 1,667 words per day is a very fast pace. It’s too fast for you to stop and do any editing, and it’s too fast for any long pondering about what to add. You have to make yourself sit down and write, period.

Some of what you write in that fast a pace is, almost by necessity, going to be horrible. The novel as a whole may turn out not to be anything at all good or marketable (which are not the same thing). But by forcing yourself to write every day, and hopefully turning off that little “no” voice in your head, you sometimes come up with little creative ideas and twists and turns that would never happen in a careful, more deliberate environment.

The official NaNoWriMo web site offers you a chance to connect with other participants, gives pep talks, and allows you an easy way of tracking your word count. You enter your word count and the site and you can see an easy-to-understand line graph showing whether you’re ahead of or behind pace. If you’ve missed a day (I doubt I’ll get much writing done on Election Day, for example), the site will show you what your pace needs to be to catch up and still get to 50,000 by month’s end.

In some areas, there are actually author meet-ups or “write-ins” at some quiet place like a library or coffee shop, where you can bring your laptop and do what’s normally a very solitary activity in the company of others. (“Anybody got a suggestion for a character name?”) I don’t have a laptop, and the closest location for the meetups is in Murfreesboro, but I’d love to go to one some day just to see what it’s like.

If you make it, there’s usually a little certificate you can download and print out, plus a little logo you can post to your web site or social media. It’s all on the honor system, though. Sometimes the Amazon-owned self-publisher Createspace offers you a free proof copy of your novel, which is how I came to publish my own Bad Self-Published Novel, which began its life as a NaNoWriMo project.

You can always go back later, after November has ended and you’ve taken a bit of a break, and see whether or not you think there’s enough there to make it worth trying to rewrite the novel, taking out the terrible stuff while leaving in those moments of inspiration.

There have actually been authors who have traditionally published novels which began during NaNoWriMo. Many others, of course, have self-published their NaNoWriMo novels. I still wonder what would have happened to “Soapstone” if I’d been a little bit more patient and gotten it professionally edited.

Anyone can participate in NaNoWriMo. It’s completely free, although they do sell merchandise and solicit donations to keep the web site up and running. The sense of accomplishment you feel when you get to 50,000 is amazing.

the disappearing child

I have been in kind of a funk the past few days, but I knew my weekly volunteer hour at Learning Way Elementary would get my mind off things.

This week, Regan had me with the same group of kids – three of them – for the whole hour. We played two different games and I read two different booklets to them.

It all started off well enough – they did well with the first game. But as the hour went on, one boy became a little more animated. He tried to read aloud from his book even while I was trying to read to the group (and he was on a different page). A different boy became a little more withdrawn as the hour went on. Regan had apparently made him take off his hoodie earlier, and I, not knowing this, let him put it back on. (He said he was cold.) As the hour went on he kind of disappeared into it, pulling the hood down over his head and the torso up over his chin.

The two booklets were fairly standard little things, and very similar to each other – one was about how plums are grown, the other was about the life cycle of acorns becoming oak trees and then dropping new acorns. Regan had specifically told me to read each book twice aloud to the kids.

“This is stupid,” said one of the kids.

I tried to be patient and kind throughout but also to be firm and direct when I needed to keep things on track. I think by the end of the hour I was getting a little frustrated. (And I only do this for an hour a week.)

The third child, a girl, was fine. I had no problems with her whatsoever.

I so admire the professionals who do this day in and day out.

John goes back to school

Since January of 2013, I’ve been a volunteer with the “Raise Your Hand Tennessee” program at Learning Way Elementary School, spending an hour a week on Monday mornings as a volunteer.
In that spring semester of 2013, I divided my hour between Regan Aymett and another teacher, but in the 2013-14 school year, and again this year, I’m with Regan’s class for the whole hour. It’s always one of the highlights of my week.
The program is designed to help reading skills. You can volunteer to work individually with a child, or with groups. I volunteered to work with groups. United Way will work around your schedule to put you in a school near you on a day and time that’s convenient for you. (The program also does a background check on each volunteer, so parents and educators can feel safe about them coming into the classroom.)
Back when I signed up for the program, I think I had something in mind similar to when I’d visit a local school on “Read Across America” day — sitting in a rocking chair reading to the kids. But that hasn’t been it at all. Usually, what happens is that when I arrive, Regan will pull out a small group of kids and I’ll sit with them at a table, playing some sort of word-based game, or helping them fill out a worksheet based on some little story book.
I really enjoy it, and miss it during breaks.
The program is organized by local United Way groups, and each fall my friend, United Way of Bedford County executive director Dawn Holley, waits until after the horse show break to start calling school principals and setting things up for the new school year. Last week, Dawn gave me the go-ahead to start my volunteering for the school year, and so I was in Regan’s class this morning.
Regan is a “looping” first and second grade teacher, meaning that she teaches a group of first graders, then stays with them the next year as their second grade teacher, then loops back to pick up a new crop of first graders. So I’d been with many of the same kids during that first school-year-and-a-half, but now she’s got a brand new class.
Today, I worked with getting the kids to sort cards into proper nouns and common nouns. I had one group for the first half hour, then a different group for the second half hour. It all seems pretty basic, but Regan — an NEA Master Teacher, who’s had some of her lessons captured on video to be used by other teachers around the country — said to me at the end of the hour today that she can accomplish a lot more just by having me take one small group and her take another. (A third group of kids was over near the computer stations with a teaching assistant.)
I make up for my missing hour by coming in to work a half hour earlier on Mondays and working an extra half hour at some other time during the week. I really find it personally rewarding, and I strongly recommend it. As I said, you can choose whether you want to work with an individual child or with groups, and they’ll work around your schedule. There’s tons of scientific evidence about the educational value of adults reading to children or listening to children read.
It’s not too late to sign up for the program. Here in Bedford County, you can call United Way at 931-684-6685. Elsewhere in Tennessee, check with your local United Way organization, or check with the school system to see what sorts of volunteer programs are available.

Pickup rehearsal

Our original plan was to have two full rehearsals, but without costumes or perishable food props, one tonight and one tomorrow night.

But when we got ready to rehearsal tonight, we realized a reason why we needed to wear costumes tomorrow night. And so we decided that tomorrow night would be another dress rehearsal, and tonight we’d just do a table read, running our lines but not our “blocking” (stage movements).

It went pretty well. I’d listened to my lines a couple of times since last weekend, but I can’t say that I was very intense about it, and so it was nice to know that I didn’t lose all my lines over the past few days. Everyone else did well too.

Everyone reports getting good feedback about our opening weekend, and ticket sales are going well so far for our second and final weekend. If you don’t have your tickets yet, call 684-8359.